Two more reviews of Gods and Generals, if you can stand reading more about that movie. The sad thing is that the American Spectator is a conservative journal, and features works by authors who are predisposed to want to like a production of this sort (they mention this in the articles). – Jonah




Gods and Garbage

By James Bowman (American Spectator, March/April 2003)



After three and a half hours, you will stagger out of Gods and Generals, Ronald F. Maxwell's prequel to Gettysburg, stupefied with pathos. From the start, it offers the full Ken Burns treatment of the Civil War, with weepy violins and catch-in-the-throat personal commentary, and it never lets up. As Oscar Wilde said of the death of Dickens's Little Ned, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at it. For where Burnsian schmalz is endurable for an hour, with a week to recover before the next dose, it is quite intolerable spun out to this length and administered in one sitting. The whole movie takes place on an emotional fortissimo that becomes merely wearisome where it is not laughable.


Even more disastrously, Maxwell and Jeff Shaara, author of the novel he adapted, seem to labor (and boy do they labor!) under the misapprehension that the soldiers of the Civil War were a species of preachers, their minds ever fixed on higher things and inclined to drone on about the higher things. The love, for instance, of General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) for his homeland - meaning Virginia - is "something these Yankees do not understand.” What to them are just "markings on a map" are to Marse Robert "birthplaces and burial grounds, they're battlefields where our ancestors fought. They're places where we learned to walk, to talk, to pray. They're places where we made friendships and fell in love.... They're the incarnation of all our memories and all that we are. All that we are.”


That portentous repetition of the final phrase becomes something of a tic. "It's not yet our time, gentlemen; it’s not yet our time,” More than once, someone says: "Hail, Caesar. We who are about to die salute you." Not that there is any actual Caesar present, apart from Julius, crossing the Rubicon in one of the more tedious voiceover ruminations by Col. Josiah Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). As for the eponymous "Gods" we have only the firm Christian faith of several of the soldiers - most notably General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), the film's real hero - to go on. One can only imagine what Old Blue Light would have made of the plural.


True, the speechifying and the poetry are livened up with an occasional clumsy and obvious irony, such as having two Irish brigades, one Union and one Confederate, blazing away at each other as someone shouts: "You left Ireland to escape tyranny... and now you're shootin' each other in the land of the free!" Well fancy that.


The personnel for the battle scenes come from societies of Civil War re-enactors and it is very much a re-enactors' movie - which is to say that it has an antiseptic, educational quality in which the soldiers look like waxworks. And even the authenticity is dubious at times. The generals on both sides, for example, always seem to know who is opposite them and the disposition of his troops. There is no hint of whence comes this excellent intelligence, which makes for economy of narrative but not nearly enough of the fog of war that ultimately costs General Jackson his life.


One wants to be as generous as possible to this film because in some ways it is very daring. For one thing, it has the boldness to represent Confederate soldiers as human and sympathetic; for another it offers a welcome contrast to the war movies of the past two or three decades, which generally start from the premise that all the shooting makes no sense at all and is undertaken either by drug-crazed psychopaths (most Vietnam movies) or by decent men with obscure private motivations (The Patriot, Saving Private Ryan). But here we go to the opposite extreme, where all the characters speak and act like monumental statuary. Clearly some kind of balance ought to be struck.




Ben Stein’s Diary

(American Spectator, March/April 2003)

By Ben Stein



Uh-oh. A bad movie review coming up. As you may recall, I am a huge Civil War buff. I spend at least some time every day reading about the Civil War in my many Civil War magazines and books. And I am tortured by it all of the time. Did so many fine young men really have to die? Couldn't there have been a way out involving buying the slaves? And, by the way, talk about acting out of guilt and fear, how about that Edmund Ruffin and the other fire-eating pro-slavery guys? Talk about proclaiming a moral cause where there was not one. And then think of the incredibly unbelievably brave men who died in the awful cause of protecting slavery. I honor them every minute, but - as Grant said - rarely have so many men fought so bravely in such a bad cause. (Although think of the brave German soldiers fighting for Hitler. How do we explain their unquestionable bravery? This has to be examined by someone smarter than I am.)


Anyway, I have been salivating thinking for some time now about going to see Gods and Generals, the movie about the Civil War. And tonight, wifey and I are off to a lovely theater in Westwood to see it.


Oops. Mistake. This is a movie that needs desperately a lot of surgery. The battle scenes are good, although intensely repetitive. The scenery, especially at beloved Washington and Lee, is perfect. But the acting is so wooden and stiff you cannot believe it. The scenes are so stilted and long that it boggles the mind. You sort of have to see how everyone gives a speech for the slightest reason, with no provocation. Nothing happens quickly, but everything is in slow, gelatinized, ultra-pretentious motion. The part of Stonewall Jackson is just hilariously stuffy and slow. So are all of the parts. And the poor black people in it make the black people in Gone With the Wind look like Malcolm X. They are such Uncle Toms and such mealy-mouthed apologists for the slave system by their very deference that it makes the viewer wonder why there even was an antislavery movement if the slaves were so happy with their masters.


Plus, there is a scene in which Stonewall is congratulating the Stonewall Brigade for their fine service in the famed Shenandoah campaign (which Douglas Southall Freeman does not think was really that much of a success. And my WordPerfect does not recognize Shenandoah as a word. Nice, huh?) But at no time does the film even mention what happened in the Shenandoah campaign or why it was so important. Plus, General Bee's vital contributions at Manassas are almost totally overlooked, and one would never guess that Lee was not the head of the army of Northern Virginia from Day One.


Anyway, what a ghastly movie. We left after two hours-and it was only half over.


Oh, I have to mention one other amazing scene. This is the one in which Stonewall and his black cook pray together for the freedom of the slaves. What! Where did that come from? Stonewall Jackson as an abolitionist? This is all mixed up with some nonsense about a plan to free slaves who would fight on the Confederate side--a plan that did exist at the very end of the war - and which Lee shot down cursorily. "If we were to do this, would it not undermine the entire basis on which the war was fought?" he asked, in words to that effect. He meant that the basis was that the black man was not fit for freedom or battle. How wrong he was, and yet he was widely loved, and still is, for his skill and (in most cases) gentlemanliness. (My WordPerfect does not recognize gentlemanliness either.)


Anyway, Gods and Generals was about as big a disappointment as a movie could be. Stick to Freeman’s Lee's Lieutenants or just his massive biography of Lee himself, or, if you really want a spectacular treat, try Benet’s John Brown's Body. In my little opinion, which does not count for much, it is the definitive American epic poem. You can get it on Amazon, although go to the online Advanced Book Exchange to get the rare illustrated version. Or maybe stick with Gone With the Wind, a movie by people who knew how to make a movie.


Oh, also, a little lesson for moviemakers. First, Gods and Generals started with a book by a man who (in my opinion) is not a great writer on the Civil War and really knows far too little about great writing to be a worthy source. This was a mistake. Then, the producers of the movie idiotically allowed the screenwriter, someone named Ronald Maxwell, also to direct. This was an actual debacle. He obviously could not bear to leave out one word of his deathless script, and the result is a massively bloated, not at all dramatic, portentous, and pretentious blob. From now on, Ted Turner, producer, try a little bit of intelligence and have a different writer and director. Anyway, all in all, a giant disappointment.